Could price hikes and cost of living turn Israel against Bennett?

POLITICAL AFFAIRS: Eleven years after the July 2011 socioeconomic protests, disgruntled consumers are headed back to the streets.

 A GROCER unpacks bags of Osem noodles in a Tel Aviv market. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A GROCER unpacks bags of Osem noodles in a Tel Aviv market.

It all started with a few tents pitched on Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard in July 2011 and quickly led to tents all over the country, mass demonstrations in Tel Aviv and a genuine threat to the government of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Those demonstrations gained momentum and focused the country on the high costs of living and housing, as the public demanded social justice. The charismatic leaders of the protests, Itzik Shmuli, Stav Shaffir, Daphne Leef and Itzik Alrov became instant celebrities, and Shmuli and Shaffir ended up in the Knesset.

Now similar protests are being planned, as the prices of electricity, gas and household goods are rising and people are getting angrier.

Could the price hikes and disgruntlement be the issue that turns the country against Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition?

Alrov, who led the successful “cottage cheese rebellion” that helped ignite the protests, is now a strategic and media adviser. He warned ministers months ago that the main challenges that they need to prepare for were not the coronavirus and its variants but a security deterioration and a rise in the cost of living. He said back then that those were the two issues that could lead to a political upheaval.

Illustrative photo of Israeli money (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)Illustrative photo of Israeli money (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“The wave of rises in prices looks to the public like a situation that has gotten out of control, and it could make the government pay a heavy price,” he said Thursday. “The government ministers are acting like ostriches, burying their heads down in the sand and hoping the public discourse will change. But the problem of the cost of living in Israel, unlike the coronavirus, is not a wave that ebbs and flows, but a problem that has to be dealt with to prevent it from continuing to escalate.”

Alrov said ministers who were in the opposition before need to learn to set goals and targets so the public can measure if they succeeded or failed at keeping the goals of lowering the cost of living. But he said the ministers prefer politics and slogans, not setting goals and getting their hands dirty.

“This problem is a ticking time bomb, and the public will demand they take the issue seriously and deliver results,” he said.

Alrov and Leef, unlike Shaffir and Shmuli, are models for the new protest leaders, because they never ran for office. Yoni Yahav, who heads the Yellow Vests protest group which blocked the entrance to the Knesset on Wednesday, says he sees politicians as the enemy.

“We aren’t political, and we won’t be political,” Yahav said. “Shmuli himself ended up raising prices and signing edicts as a minister that we’re protesting now. We are against politicians and politics. We aren’t after political seats. Our goal is significantly lowering prices.”

To that end, the Yellow Vests are planning a large protest at Charles Clore Park on the Tel Aviv-Jaffa beach on Saturday night as an opening shot in what he believes will be an intense battle that will rage nationwide. Yahav promised to close major junctions across the country and drafted the disabled groups, who are experts in shutting down streets.

“We will shut down the country for a few days,” he vowed. “The public will have to have patience. We will paralyze the country like never before.”

Asked what his message is to the world, Yahav said: “It cannot be that in Israel they are robbing us from when we brush our teeth in the morning with toothpaste that costs four times as much as the rest of the world, and we continue to be robbed throughout the day. They are putting the onus on the citizens and not the tycoons, and we won’t stand for it.”

The vests worn by Yahav’s movement are intended to impress that ordinary citizens are not transparent. A similar slogan was used by Shas in a recent election. Shas leader Arye Deri helped spark the current outcry with a video about hungry children he published a week ago with attacks on Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman. Yahav, however, does not want to be associated with the man who was convicted of tax offenses on Tuesday.

“I don’t care about Arye Deri,” he said. “I care about the food on the plate of my children. We know Liberman is in charge, and we are telling him we are really in charge, not you.”

There was a backlash against Deri because he released the video from Switzerland, where he enjoyed a weekend at a posh resort in St. Moritz, which Liberman called the most expensive town in Europe. Deri said at a Knesset press conference on Wednesday that the trip was a gift from his children to celebrate the end of his legal travails and had nothing to do with the fight he intends to lead against the rising cost of living.

“Hungry kids are not just a slogan of Shas,” he said. “It’s the painful reality of life in Israel. Liberman, Bennett and Lapid, look at what you brought upon us. The reason for the prices rising is Liberman, who is raising taxes out of revenge against the ultra-Orthodox.”

Even Deri admitted that the conviction forcing him to quit the Knesset will handicap his fight. It will be hard for him to lead the opposition without being an MK.

THERE WILL be plenty of MKs from inside the coalition who will try to solve the problems internally without letting the government be harmed. Knesset Economics Committee head Michael Biton (Blue and White), who is a former mayor of Yeroham, and Knesset Finance Committee member Naama Lazimi (Labor), a former Haifa city councilwoman, have been spearheading those efforts.

“The government must use all its power against companies and corporations,” Lazimi said. “It could take steps to stop prices rising and wages remaining low, using the Competition Authority. The electricity hike could have been prevented. After a crisis like the coronavirus, giving money helps the economy recovery. This is the time to invest, even at the expense of raising the national debt.”

Lazimi said the current government should not be blamed for problems that are the result of 20 years of neglect by governments, most of which were led by Netanyahu. But she warned that the next state budget, which Liberman intends to pass in the cabinet by May, must include significant steps to lower the cost of living.

“This isn’t like the last budget, where we made sacrifices because a budget had not been passed in three years,” she said. “Labor will not allow a budget that harms people. We have redlines, and Labor will be dominant. A Band-Aid is not enough.”

Lazimi initiated a bill that would raise the minimum wage from NIS 29 to NIS 40, saying “it is wrong that people who earn minimum wage are below the poverty line.”

Asked whether she was inspired by Shmuli and Shaffir, who were MKs in her party, Lazimi said it is Labor’s current MKs who inspire her.

“We have brought the voice of a new generation who feel hurt on so many fronts,” said Lazimi, who at 36 is one of the Knesset’s youngest MKs.

Biton called upon Bennett to solve the problems himself by forming a new cabinet on the cost of living. The prime minister had not responded to the call by Thursday afternoon.

Bennett was burned by campaigning for a “Singapore economic plan” that he promised would “dramatically cut taxes by 15%,” which he has not made an effort to implement.

Likud MK Gila Gamliel said she believes the government can be brought down on the socioeconomic issue, which she said is a weak point for Bennett.

“There has been no management,” she said. “People were hurt as a result of the corona crisis, and the government not only doesn’t help; they are making it harder by raising taxes and prices. It’s gotten crazy.”

But another Likud MK, who asked not to be named, said he is less optimistic, because it’s not Netanyahu in power that the demonstrators are protesting.

“The previous waves of demonstrations were advanced by the Left and the media,” the MK said.

Indeed, it has been revealed that left-wing groups met with senior American strategist Stan Greenberg, who recommended initiating the protests, and they followed his playbook. The Yellow Vests, by contrast, may be making mistakes by expecting protesters to come out in the rain in February instead of pitching tents in July.

The Left has no interest in bringing the current government down and the Likud back to power. Netanyahu remained in office for 10 years after the 2011 protests, and the last thing they want is to help bring his tent back to the Prime Minister’s Residence on Jerusalem’s Balfour Street.

“I wish it were otherwise, but it’s hard for me to believe that protests are what will bring this government down,” the Likud MK said. •